Written by Denise Chircop,
On 1 December the European Parliament library hosted a round-table with the participation of MEP Martina Dlabajová, Vice-Chair on the Committee on Budgetary Control and rapporteur of EP initiative report on ‘Creating a competitive EU labour market for the 21st century: matching skills and qualification with demand and job opportunities, as a way to recover from the crisis’ and Professor Joseph Weiler, former President of the European University Institute (EUI, Fiesole).
In his welcome speech Anthony Teasdale, Director General of the European Parliament Research Service (EPRS) pointed out that this round-table was the third of a series being organised in cooperation with the EUI. Prof Brigid Laffan, Director, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, EUI, welcomed the participants from Florence indicating that higher education was facing extraordinary changes as a result of new technologies and internationalisation. She also stressed the importance of Higher Education in the evolution of the knowledge society.
The place of higher education
In his keynote speech, Professor Joseph Weiler cautioned that discussing Higher Education in times of austerity measures and high youth unemployment risked being focused exclusively on business and labour market needs at the expense of other considerations. Universities, for instance, are custodians of culture and so the humanities must be defended, yet they are struggling for survival. In his thought provoking speech, he identified some negative consequences of otherwise positive developments. The internationalisation of research is accompanied by the dominance of English as a language of scholarship and in the long-term, this could contribute towards the erosion of Europe’s rich linguistic heritage as other languages lose a certain expressive capacity. Research grants are useful and the competition raises standards, yet bibliometrics and an excessive concern with rankings can obstruct solid scholarship. The international contacts promoted by Erasmus+ are precious but a fetish approach to mobility could lead to undesirable forms of academic tourism. He also compared the situation of doctoral and post-doctoral programmes in Europe with those in the United States, the latter being much more homogeneous. At the same time, he identified some common points in European programmes which would benefit from further reflection. Firstly, doctoral programmes in Europe make no distinction between those who will later join academia and those who will become practitioners. Secondly, they are heavily dependent on the dissertation and its supervision. Thirdly, academic staff rarely receive sufficient formation to teach and supervise and lastly, post-doctoral programmes in Europe are not real programmes but grants that cover the transition between doctoral studies and a post with a university.
A panel discussion followed in which Pep Torn, Library director and Annika Zorn, founder of an on-line school, both from the EUI, spoke of their experiences with on-line learning. Pep Torn drew attention to the changing context of Higher Education. This first panel was chaired by Alfredo De Feo, EP Fellow, EUI. He indicated that to maintain current trends in student intake in the EU, a new university with a capacity of 10,000 students would need to be set up every two days. At the same time the information society has modified the forms of knowledge we priorities. Changes in study and work patterns also mean more adults will continue to study intermittently throughout their adult lives. In this context he questioned whether universities are doing enough to meet needs. He drew on the experiences of the first online university, the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), and of the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU) to explain that technology cannot replace methodology. While online learning can bring together large numbers from different parts of the globe, on-site learning is strong on human contact so that it can be profitable for learners to experience both. Annika Zorn developed the notion of communities of learners by claiming that university teaching needs to move away from lecturing to become more student centred. Universities need to reflect on the learning process in order to become more effective. This can be supported with the exchange of best practice. At the same time, online tools can help create a dynamic relationship between research, teaching and learning. Researchers contribute by presenting their research, learners with questions and challenges. In this way the ‘community’ evolves into a community of experts. She finally raised the issue of engaged interaction with wider society.
Bridging the skills gap
A second panel discussion with MEP Martina Dlabajová and Lars Bo Jakobsen, Head of Unit, Education and Youth Policy analysis Unit at the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA) focused on the skills mismatch. The second panel was chaired by Susanne Oberhauser, Director for Structural and Cohesion Policies, DG IPOL. Martina Dlabajová admitted that whereas she used to advocate for stronger links between academia and industry, now she appreciates that collaboration needs to be three way, to include policy makers. The debate and vote that led to the adoption of her report was a clear indication that the subject was controversial. She expressed concern over youth unemployment and low levels of mobility within the EU. As president of a regional Chamber of Commerce, she had understood that companies often considered insufficient cooperation with universities as an obstacle. Synergies are needed to anticipate future skills while guidance and counselling has to help young people to find the motivation to study. Teachers and lecturers need to keep up-to-date so that what they teach is not seen as outdated. Otherwise students could lose interest. Countries with dual-systems of education also have lower unemployment rates, so she was very pleased that traineeships and apprenticeships will be included in the upcoming EURES directive, something she had advocated. EURES is the European job mobility portal.
For his part, Lars Bo Jakobsen explained that Eurydice is a network which is present in 37 countries with 41 national units. It carries out stock-taking exercises following the European Semester which monitor countries’ implementation of the goals they had agreed upon. Policy makers can use the data to revise old priorities and identify new ones in the following round of discussions. He pointed out that the majority of countries have a requirement to formally involve employers in all Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). Most HEIs are required to offer career guidance but they do not often target students from under-represented groups, even though they need it the most. At the same time, only a few educational authorities make systematic use of graduate tracking surveys and this is usually done to measure the quality of institutional functioning.
Discussant Denise Chircop, policy analyst at the EPRS, picked on the tension between universities’ academic calling and the requirement to respond to labour market needs. While acknowledging this dilemma as very real, she pointed out that education is of its nature multifaceted; in practice, educators self-consciously set a variety of aims to teaching and learning. Preparing students for the world of work does not have to be at the expense of personal fulfilment nor the development of proactive citizens. Markus Prutsch, from the Culture and Education secretariat at the European Parliament, concluded by raising three points which he formulated as questions. First, how do e-learning and the digital competencies mentioned in the first panel relate to other challenges in Higher Education such as the internationalisation of curricula? Second, what is the fate of the humanities, and linked to that, critical thought in the Higher Education Institutions of an information society? Third, is e-learning equally appropriate in all phases and contexts of education?